Notebook: Rutgers running backs break out against Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill -- It was never supposed to be easy for the Rutgers football team in the Big Ten. But on Saturday against Illinois, running the ball was no problem at all, as the Scarlet Knights racked up 274 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns en route to a 35-24 victory over Illinois, the team's first conference win since 2015, snapping a 16-game losing streak.
Make no mistake, Rutgers had come close to conference wins, but often squandered its chances due to turnovers and late collapses by the defense.
But by running the ball so effectively, the Knights were able to control the tempo of the game and keep themselves ahead for the entire contest. Offensive coordinator Jerry Kill dialed up 45 running plays, as opposed to just 12 passes play -- nearly 4 times as many calls on the ground.
"You can’t let a team run the ball like that. If you let a team run the ball like that on you, most of the time it will say loss at the end," said Illinois head coach Lovie Smith of the way his defense was tasked with going against such a dominating offensive line.
Smith once brought a Chicago Bears team to the Super Bowl, but is now tasked with rebuilding a program perhaps in a worse situation than Rutgers and it showed on Saturday.
On the stat sheet, Rutgers had 4 different running backs score a touchdown, with graduate transfer Gus Edwards scoring 2 of his own. Those 5 scores were the most a Scarlet Knight team has had in 14 years and the 274 yards were the most ever for the team in a Big Ten game.
"The emphasis this whole week was running the ball and that the guys up front had to win the game for us," Edwards said. "I feel like they stepped up to the plate and they did a great job creating holes."
And while quarterback Gio Rescigno did not have to throw the ball that much, he had no problem with that. He was effective rolling out of the pocket and finding receivers but also had a couple of successful designed running plays.
He finished with 41 rushing yards and ran as hard as anyone on the team, putting his head down and fighting for every yard, the attitude set forth by his backs.
After the game, he noted how a successful running game helps him as a passer.
"It’s incredible. (Head) coach (Chris Ash) talked about how we had to win the game up front this week and I really think we did that," Rescigno said. "I think the stats speak for themselves. So shout out to the O-Line they did an amazing job and an incredible job. They really dominated up front and I think that was huge for our success.”
While Ash's job as the head man is not in jeopardy, the game against the Illini was nothing short of a must-win for him and the program. Illinois had been struggling all season and was starting 10 true freshman, as Smith committed a youth movement.
Saturday's game was the best chance the Knights would have to win a Big Ten game this season and Ash made the decision to go back to the basics -- hard-nosed, lunch pail, Big Ten football.
It wasn't fancy, it wasn't exciting, but it got the job done. From the starting 5 offensive linemen to the tight ends to the wide receivers, everyone dominated in their respective blocking matchups.
The win gives the team plenty of confidence with another opportunity at a win coming Saturday against Purdue and more positive outlook on the season, all thanks to the running game.
"You can't do that without guys up front. We're really happy to be able to run the ball like that. We feel if you can run the ball like that you have a chance to win," Ash said. "It all starts with those guys up front and I'm really proud of them."